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Arts & Culture

Williams leads songwriting masterclass

Students, community members attend singer-songwriter Dar Williams’s masterclass, concert

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 14, 2019

Brown Arts Initiative sponsored the most recent installment in the Songwriting Series, which featured performances by workshop attendees as well as a concert by Dar Williams after the masterclass.

With acoustic and electric guitars strapped to their backs, songwriters hailing from the Brown and Providence communities filed into the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Performing Arts Wednesday afternoon. They arrived not only anticipating a performance from renowned folk singer-songwriter Dar Williams but also ready to perform for her.

The event, sponsored by the Brown Arts Initiative, began with a master class featuring student performances and culminated in an evening concert in which Williams performed samples of her music. The event continued the BAI’s Songwriting Series, a program that facilitates weekly workshops  and brings renowned songwriters to campus to host master classes and concerts, according to Butch Rovan, the faculty director of the BAI and founder of the series.

The BAI’s Songwriting Series is open to Providence community members, some of whom performed at Wednesday’s event.

Called “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters” by The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, Williams has produced more than ten albums and three books, including one about the numerous towns in which she has toured throughout her almost three-decade career. The University selected Williams to host the class after receiving a list of student recommendations, Rovan said.

“She’s a perfect fit for Brown. She’s an amazingly talented singer-songwriter, she’s engaged in public service and she’s a great teacher,” Rovan added.  Songwriters in the master class would benefit from Williams’s perspective on lyric-writing, given her “ability to get inside someone else’s song and read between the lines,” Rovan said.

Morgan Johnston, a singer-songwriter based just outside Providence who attends the weekly workshops, said it is “very special that the program reaches out into the (Providence) community.” She felt excited to learn from Williams because she wanted to “see the person behind the songwriter.”

Tracie Potochnik, singer-songwriter and co-facilitator of the series’s workshops, said that participants would “learn a lot by hearing feedback from someone who’s established in her career.” She added that the master class allows songwriters and audience members to “see a different side of the artist” in a casual, supportive setting. If writers are receiving comments on songs when the “ink is still wet,” fostering a comfortable environment is deeply important, Potochnik said.

Lily Porter Wright ’20 was one of the seven participants from the series selected to perform at Williams’ master class. Wright expressed gratitude toward the University for providing her the opportunity to  “play a song in front of a celebrity” and added that she joined the Songwriting Series to receive constructive feedback from other songwriters. “There isn’t really a class space for that on campus,” she said.

As artists performed at the master class, Williams nodded along to the music, jotting down notes. After asking each performer what motivated them to write their song, she offered feedback on how to best adapt the song’s musical form to its lyrical message. “When you write a line, you are the goddess of time and space,” she told one songwriter. “Stretch the line out on your own terms.”

Williams’s concert Wednesday evening featured a brief but broad sample of her songs, both old and new. Singing about topics ranging from traveling to motherhood while drawing on Greek mythology and childhood memories for inspiration, her repertoire remained cohesive through her use of familiar melodies and her poignant, often humorous, style.

The Songwriting Series’ first guest artists were Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal, The Herald previously reported. Rovan expects the series to keep expanding: He is planning to launch a parallel series of writing workshops that focus on rap and hip-hop next spring, although this program is “still in the development stage.”

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